Practically every songwriter confronts this nagging problem at some point, and sometimes very often: You start writing, and right away you notice that it’s similar to some other song you’ve heard before.
There’s nothing like noticing that your new song sounds like an already-existing one to kill your songwriting process in its tracks. So then you start again, trying to move in some new direction, and — you guessed it — you discover that you’ve been unwittingly rewriting Adele’s “Someone Like You!”
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Since most songwriters have a deep-seated fear of plagiarizing another song, you find fear becomes your new constant companion.
Unintentionally copying songs serves to remind us that no one is truly creating something completely new. We are all borrowers or robbers, taking what’s already been done, and hopefully building on it, or manipulating it, into something new enough that it’s ours.
So if you find that your latest song idea sounds uncomfortably like something you just heard on Vevo, fix it. Change it enough that you get to keep it, or at least keep the basic idea.
Here are some tips for doing just that:
1. Identify the bit that sounds too familiar.
When you really scrutinize your musical idea, it may seem that it all sounds like Jack White’s “Over and Over and Over”, when in fact you may have just borrowed aspects of the opening guitar riff. So you may find that coming up with a new riff — something that doesn’t bear resemblance to that riff — makes the rest of your song idea sound unique. One little fix can solve what sounds like an insurmountable problem.
2. Reverse melodies.
If you can’t tell what sounds familiar, the biggest problem will be melodies and lyrics, since they are the bits that are protected by copyright. So isolate the melody as a first step. Play it without accompaniment, and then try playing it with a simple chord progression. Change the tempo, and do whatever you can to identify it. If you finally figure out the song you’ve “borrowed” that melody from, try reversing the melodic direction in the parts that sound most similar.
So let’s say that you’ve been working on a melody that uses a nice rising 3-note idea, followed by a gently descending phrase, and you realize that you’re rewriting the chorus to Leonard Cohen’s famous “Hallelujah.”
Instead of trashing it, look for ways to change the melodic direction, and make sure that your lyrics don’t give you up. In other words, be sure that your lyric isn’t essentially a rewriting of the notion of “hallelujah.”
Reversing melodic direction will only work if you also purposely avoid the same rhythmic treatment of that fragment. But all of this is quite easy to do. And making these easy changes may be all you need to do to keep it from sounding too familiar.
3. Change the rhythms of the chords.
Chords aren’t protected by copyright, but as the “Blurred Lines” controversial decision has shown us, the feel of a song can be the bit that sounds too much like something else. So in your latest song, you may notice that you’ve used the same chords as Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” — not really a problem — but the rhythms you use to convey those chords might also be similar, and now you’re in tricky territory.
My advice in cases where the chords and rhythms sound the same is to keep the chords, and see if you can work out a new rhythmic groove for your song. It will amaze you how different chords will sound when given a different rhythmic treatment.
4. Dealing with similar lyrics.
As a songwriter, you should be familiar with the rewriting lines of lyrics as a standard part of your songwriting process. So dealing with lyrics you’ve written that sound too much like the lyrics of your favourite song shouldn’t be too difficult.
But you may find that there’s more of a problem. Perhaps it’s the entire story or situation that you’re writing about. And when it’s all taken together, you’ve got a deeper snag to solve.
Composer Eric Whitacre encountered a problem when he set Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening” to original music. He discovered that use of the poem required permission from the Frost estate, and he was unable to obtain that permission. So he had a problem: a finished song with a lyric that he wasn’t allowed to use.
His solution was to commission poet Charles Anthony Silvestri to write an entirely new poem that used the same rhythms, pulses and emotions of Frost’s poem. The result was Whitacre’s well-known composition “Sleep,” an absolutely beautiful work.
There’s nothing like discovering this sort of problem in your songwriting to stop you dead in your tracks. But it’s important to acknowledge that no one is writing completely original music with no connection to other music already composed.
And because inadvertent plagiarism is such a common problem to solve, rather than allowing it to stop us in our tracks, we should accept it simply as a part of our songwriting process, and fix it, just as we would tackle a melody that needs work, or a lyric that needs some rewording.
Plagiarism is not an indication that you’ve got no good songwriting ideas. It is, in fact, proof that your brain is in the process of assimilating and manipulating the musical experiences occupying your mind at any given moment.
And from time to time, that process of manipulating those ideas just requires a bit of extra help.
“The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” eBook bundle gives you lots of help when it comes to writing song melodies. Chapter 5 of “The Essential Secrets of Songwriting” shows you how lyrics and melody work hand-in-hand, and “How to Harmonize a Melody” shows you how to add chords to that melody you’ve just created.